David Petraeus developed a reputation for preaching a softer-side of counterinsurgency but it is important to remember that in Iraq and Afghanistan he was responsible for the deaths of vast numbers of Islamist militants—more than any other American, I would wager. Now in his new capacity as CIA director he has notched another important kill: A CIA drone fired a Hellfire missile in Yemen which blew up Anwar al-Awlaki, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
It is very much to President Obama’s credit that he authorized the dispatch, without any legal proceedings, of the American-born Awlaki—something that the ACLU no doubt deplores and that a fainter-hearted president would have shied away from. And it is very much to the CIA’s credit that it managed to track him down and kill him.
This is of great importance because since the decline in capacity of al-Qaeda’s central organization in Pakistan, AQAP has emerged as its most threatening affiliate, and the one with the greatest interest in, and capacity for, staging attacks against the American homeland. Awlaki was also a high profile, English-speaking inspiration for lone-wolf jihadists such as the Fort Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. His demise is a victory for justice and a blow to AQAP. But there is no reason to believe that the blow will be fatal.
In the past, terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, Hamas, and Hezbollah have been able to replace their leaders after they were killed. AQAP may well have a similar regenerative capacity. It is helped by the political chaos that grips Yemen, a land that is lightly governed in the best of times. Taking advantage of this turmoil, AQAP has been able to carve out control of territory in southern Yemen, with hopes of expanding its sphere of influence. It also has links to the Shabab in Somalia, which similarly controls large swathes of land. When terrorist groups manage to control territory, they are unlikely to be destroyed by the mere loss of their leaders. There must be a state powerful enough to exert control on a 24/7 basis, something that doesn’t exist in either Yemen or Somalia.
We should by all means celebrate Awlaki’s demise but we should not assume that AQAP died with him.